Residents Address Town Council in First Virtual Budget Hearing

The West Hartford Town Council held a virtual public hearing on the FY2021 budget. Screenshot

The West Hartford Town Council held its first virtual public hearing on April 27, inviting residents to speak about the FY2021 budget.

By Ronni Newton

As the West Hartford Town Council continues to forge new paths and operate in uncharted territory amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the first ever virtual public hearing was held on Monday, April 28, at 2 p.m., with residents and/or taxpayers invited to address the Council with their comments about the proposed FY2021 budget that takes effect July 1, 2020.

The FY2021 budget that the West Hartford Town Council will vote to adopt next month has been amended from what was originally presented by Town Manager Matt Hart in March – with a new version offering a reduction in the mill rate and a savings to taxpayers, rather than the roughly 3.6% increase initially proposed.

By incorporating the amendments presented by Hart at a virtual Town Council meeting April 20, the town’s General Fund budget now totals $299,871,758, and the proposed mill rate is 41.74 mills – a reduction of .06 mills (0.14%) from the current FY2020 rate of 41.8 mills. For the “average” homeowner, the annual tax saving from the amended budget will be roughly $15.

Two of the three residents who addressed the Council at the virtual public hearing expressed their concern with proposed cuts to library services.

One of the areas in which Hart is looking to achieve significant savings in the FY2021 budget is through a reduction in temporary payroll of $845,222, which will impact most departments. Leisure Services – which is facing a possible need to keep outdoor pools closed this summer for public health reasons, and will be reducing programs at both senior centers – is facing an 11.7% cut to the department budget.

For the libraries, the cut would reduce the department’s budget by 9.1% and lead to a reduction in hours the facilities are open and services that are offered.

Resident Chuck Coursey, president of the West Hartford Public Library Foundation, thanked the Town Council and town staff for their efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and noted that the library community understands the need to find cost savings and “is willing to do our fair share.” However, Coursey said the problem was not so much the amount of the roughly $310,000 budget cut but rather the fact that the West Hartford Libraries are not being given the opportunity to determine how the savings are achieved.

Coursey said that typically the directors are given the authority to determine how to achieve cost savings “with the least impact on services,” but in this plan a mandated cut to temporary payroll will negatively impact the hours of operation.

“The amount of the proposed reduction increases the digital divide,” Coursey said, at a time when it’s most important, when the library can provide free access to its computers to residents who cannot afford technology or internet access, so they can be able to apply for jobs or even citizenship and other critical services.

In addition, once the libraries reopen, if social distancing is still mandated, they will have to assign extra staff to meter use of equipment in order to maintain the required distancing.

Library usage during the country’s last major recession was very high, Coursey said, and the library has been providing very valuable service to the town during the COVID-19 crisis, including serving as the town’s reception desk. as well as providing its own “business as usual” in a virtual format.

Coursey requested the Town Council to consider that if the library is being asked to cut its budget by more than 9%, that the “director be able to make cuts for least impact possible.”

Jill Spear, chair of the West Hartford Library Board, also voiced her displeasure with having a directive for the way in which the library’s budget must be cut. She also said the amount of the reduction itself is large, and questioned the proportion of a cut that the library is facing relative to other town departments.

“The library benefits the town as a whole, while they are also essential,” Spear said. She said libraries are an institution that provides more than “leisurely service” as they help form cohesive community by joining together people with diverse backgrounds, and currently are being called upon to also help with emergency response.

A directive to cut the budget in a way that diminishes hours and services could adversely impact public health, Spear said. She noted that Mayor Shari Cantor has in the past referred to the library as the “kitchen table” of the community. “If we shut the doors to the kitchen, how will the community be fed?”

Resident Joanne Palmer also addressed the Town Council by phone, requesting further information about the Board of Education budget, and asking why West Hartford funds about 80% of the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District budget. She added that she would like to see West Hartford Community [Interactive] provide more notices with budget information.

It appeared that other callers might have been trying to access the meeting, but after after several resources during which the connections were verified, there were no other requests from residents or taxpayers to address the Town Council.

A second public hearing will be held on April 30 at 6 p.m. To access that hearing and offer comment, callers should:

  • Call: 1-415-655-0001
  • Input Access Code: 191 626 254

Only those who wish to speak should use the phone connection. Those who wish to watch the hearing can do so through West Hartford Community Interactive Comcast Channel 5 and Frontier TV Channel 6098. The hearing will also be streamed live at www.whctv.org and available on the station’s YouTube channel for viewing live or on demand.

Any West Hartford resident or taxpayer may submit a written comment via email to [email protected].  Written comments will be made part of the record at the April 30, 2020, public hearing and posted on the town’s website. In order to be included as part of the record, comments must meet the following requirements:

  • Comments must be received no later than 11:59 p.m. on April 28, 2020.
  • The “subject” of the email shall be: “[LAST NAME, FIRST NAME] Fiscal Year 2020-2021 Budget”.
  • The body of the email must begin with the commenter’s full name and street address and a statement that they are either a resident or taxpayer.
  • Comments must be germane to the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 Budget and no longer than 500 words.

The Board of Education will be voting on its budget on April 28.

The Town Council is tentatively planning to schedule its budget vote for May 12, but based on permitted changes to the budget adoption process outlined by Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders, has until May 26 to adopt it.

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